Success is Not a Best Guess

Creating Clarity, Enabling Success
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Success is Not a Best Guess
Paper 4. Series 6: Motivation & Communication
A key question we ask leaders of a business when assessing their company is ‘How do you know you
are successful?’ A private company might declare their cash in the bank as a marker of success. A
publicly listed company could show its dividends. A public agency could show its quality of service. A
charity might share case stories of those it is helping. These can all be helpful measures but we like
to delve a little deeper to test the substance behind the statements.
Last year, we asked one particular senior management team
how they measure success. They gladly shared with us several
reports, documents and spreadsheets, all of which were detailed
and carefully put together. Taken as a whole though we were
confused; there was so much information that it was hard to
identify the key measures and spot risks or opportunities. Their
meetings were long, communication with the Board was
complex, and frequently they found themselves chasing data for
yet another report rather than planning strategy. They had fallen
into a trap; their operational needs had over-taken their
management requirements. Though they led a business with several departments and multiple
services, their management data was far too complex. As a result, success was an elusive subject. To
highjack the late, great Eric Morecambe’s riposte to world-famous conductor André Previn, “They
were looking at all the right information, just not necessarily in the right order!”1
There is a well-known phrase in management, “what gets measured, gets done”, and it is true that
just because something is measured it does not mean the information provided is useful, the best
available nor will it be acted upon. Those that remember the New Labour years of UK Government
also know that measurement was a mantra of this administration. National indicators, frameworks,
KPIs, progress measures, outcomes, etc. abounded. Anecdotal experience showed that many
departments, organisations and teams got very good at measuring data to provide the ‘right’
evidence not necessarily the best evidence. So, choosing the right measures is crucial.
For companies and organisations prioritising what is measured is a way of ensuring effective and
efficient processes. Going back to our recent client’s needs, we adopted a clear approach to every
For those too young to understand the reference, I suggest you search online for the video of Morecambe and Wise with
Andre Previn Grieg's Piano Concerto
Creating Clarity, Enabling Success
manager and director we spoke to, asking them this question: What are the three ways you would
measure the success of this business? This provoked a heated debate at times but in a few short
meetings we forced the client to clarify what knowledge the senior team needed to act in a sufficient
operational and strategic capacity. From that decision one document was devised to measure
progress, prioritise resources and define success; this improved communication between the
managers and directors, it also clarified performance management which aided in the motivation of
all staff.
If your senior team is over-whelmed by a mountain of data and reports, you need to ask how
effective the leadership of the business can be in such a scenario. Is time being wasted clarifying data
or dealing with confusion? A way of responding in this situation is to ask three core questions of your
What MUST we do?
What SHOULD we be doing?
What COULD we do if we had the time?
Everything a company does can be allocated to one of these three questions. For instance:
A company MUST pay its taxes on time and correctly, it is a legal requirement, thus the
internal mechanisms to do this would be a paramount priority
An organisation SHOULD treat its staff with dignity and respect – it is not a legal requirement
but a moral one
A business COULD give a percentage of its profits away to good causes; this is normally a
choice that is in addition to the main purpose of a business2
For every business the must, should or could questions will
provoke different answers. The service, product, industry,
sector, location, structure, culture and values of a business
determine the factors at play. If these questions are asked
within a company, they provide a key insight into the
perspective and priorities of all those involved.
“One accurate
measurement is worth
a thousand expert
Grace Hopper
For one small business we assisted a few years ago the staff
team placed everything in the MUST box – everything they did was vital. Yet when pushed the
management team could begin to divide the business priorities. This showed the gulf in expectation
and communication within the business; it highlighted how they needed to work smarter and
together to turn the business around.
Another way of looking at the three questions is to slightly alter the language and ask: What would
we be fired for if we did not do it? The answer to this question becomes the “MUST DO’s” for a
company and those employed by it. This allows an assessment of priorities on different levels:
There are many ways of doing this optional deed for businesses, one way is found at
Creating Clarity, Enabling Success
i. What MUST the business do? What is / are the core drivers for the business? If it is a service
how does it provide the service to maintain its quality and margins? If it is a product, how
can it make and sell in the most effective and efficient manner?
ii. What MUST the departments / teams do? Most businesses break down functions into
departments or teams, so how does each unit contribute to the MUST do’s of the business?
iii. What MUST individuals do? Every team is made up of individuals with contracted roles and
responsibilities? So, what has each person agreed to do in order to make their team
contribute more effectively to the wider business goals?
Great leaders help focus a business on core aims. By doing so they develop a small set (or sometimes
lone description) that shows the MUST be done priorities for a business. The managers, teams and
workforce can then be aligned to the over-arching need. For example:
 Dame Mary Marsh led the NSPCC several years ago and made the mission clear with the
words “Stop Child Cruelty”, everyone’s performance in the charity was defined by this phrase
from the cleaners to the CEO.
 Charles Wilson became CEO of Bookers PLC and made it clear that as huge as the billionpound business was, it was first a foremost a Grocers. So every staff member of all
responsibilities had to talk to 20 customers every week to keep decisions grounded, to
ensure that the reality of customers spending money in their stores was ‘king’.
 For my colleagues and I at Know+Do, our mission as a business is clear: to develop
knowledge and apply it effectively. Everything we do – whether that is performance
coaching, management training, public speaking, writing or facilitation of meetings - has to
have that principle; if our services do not uphold that approach we will not create clarity for
our clients nor will we be supporting them to achieve success.
These examples show how an over-arching framework helps prioritise actions and improves
measurement in business. The key metrics chosen must help demonstrate and advance the core
principles of the businesses. It is easy to look back at data and information to group it into reports
that provide knowledge about what has been done. Leaders of businesses that know their own must
do’s will be able to use the knowledge gathered to plan for the future, i.e. to create wisdom.
So, for your organisation, what are the must, should or could do’s? What is measured in your
business and is it effective? Can you understand the priorities of the company and how it is
progressing? Try the exercise overleaf out on your team and see if they have the same perspective.
If you do fantastic, you can refine your reporting and advance the business. If not, then it’s fantastic
as well, you now have a starting point to re-align your efforts and a tool to improve what you
measure and where success will come from!
We welcome comments and feedback on how you use or share the Think Papers – you can contact
the author (Bernard Clarke) via, call (0161) 280 4567 or @berneeclarke
Creating Clarity, Enabling Success
Exercise - What Are Your Priorities?
Ask each person on your team (including yourself) to note 3 to 5 answers for each column below.
Completing the task without taking too long to plan or prepare shows the current priorities of each
person, it demonstrates the issues most prevalent in their mind.
Once each person has completed the task, pool the answers and using open questions discuss any
areas of difference or clarify views that align. Remember to clarify individual definitions and
expectations. From working as a team, you can then set clear actions and measure your success.
If you would like to discuss the planning of this exercise in more detail, call Know+Do on 0161
2804567 or email